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Saving the Last Place on Earth

HAkA Foundation patrol team supported by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. (Photo: Rudi Putra)

February 23, 2016

Why is the Leuser Ecosystem — an area of forest on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia — known as ‘the last place on earth’? Conservationist Rudi Putra (2014, Indonesia) explains:

“This is the only location in the world where four charismatic species and critically endangered species — the Sumatran rhino, tiger, elephant, and orangutan — co-exist.”

This 6.4 million acre ecosystem in the province of Aceh is also home to the sun bear and elusive clouded leopard; both are considered vulnerable according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of endangered species. According to a report by Rainforest Action Network, the area “is among the most biodiverse ecosystems ever documented by science.” Global Forest Watch has estimated its yearly economic value to the region at $350 million. However the multiple threats from conflict palm oil and poaching, as well as development activities such as mining and illegal logging, mean that its unique biodiversity is at risk.

An Activist to the Rescue

From a young age, Putra has been dedicating his life to protecting one of these creatures in particular: the Sumatran rhino. This rhino species is one of the most endangered mammals in the world, and its declining numbers are primarily due to habitat loss. Putra knew that protecting the Leuser ecosystem was key to their survival, and that the well-being of one species cannot be secured without addressing the needs of the others who also depend on this habitat — including people.

Goldman Prize winner Rudi Putra at a community meeting monitoring the expansion of palm oil plantations. (Photo: Rudi Putra)
Putra (on the right) at a community meeting monitoring the expansion of palm oil plantations. (Photo: Rudi Putra)

By the time Putra was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2014, he had garnered the support of NGOs, community members and government leaders alike to protect 1,200 acres of the Leuser by dismantling illegal palm oil plantations (here we talk about the destructive nature of palm oil harvesting.) In doing so, along with his organization the Leuser Conservation Forum (FKL), together with the HAkA Foundation (HAkA), he restored a critical wildlife corridor that had been out of use for over 12 years.

A New Partnership

Building on these achievements, and drawing attention to the plight of this unique ecosystem, Putra secured a grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation to continue his work. The grant funds FKL and HAkA’s work to dismantle an additional 1,400 acres of illegal palm oil plantations and restore these forests through planting of native trees. Another 3,000 acres of palm oil trees are planned for dismantlement next year.

Children from the Aceh province planting native trees in a former palm oil plantation. The roots of these help to guard against floods of which the region is increasingly prone.
Children from the Aceh province planting native trees in a former palm oil plantation. The roots of these help to guard against floods to which the region is increasingly prone. (Photo: Rudi Putra)

Probably the most ambitious program supported by the grant is the establishment of the Northeast Leuser Sanctuary. This almost 500,000 acre protected habitat is patrolled by four wildlife protection teams (with an additional nine across the rest of the Leuser ecosystem) who dismantle traps set by poachers, report incidences of habitat destruction and build relationships and awareness with communities bordering the area. With over 4 million people living around the Leuser who rely on the forest for their livelihood, the need to mitigate wildlife and human conflict is apparent. In fact, an estimated 20-30 Sumatran elephants are killed each year through poisoning, electricity fences, or snares. This has led to the launch of the Elephant Conflict Response Unit, supported both by the local government and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.

Elephant Conflict Response Unit: HAkA Foundation. (Photo: Rudi Putra)
Elephant Conflict Response Unit: HAkA Foundation. (Photo: Rudi Putra)

This unique program enlists the help of captive elephants and trained mahouts (elephant caretakers). Since the 1980s, the Indonesian government has captured elephants for domestication, and they are completely dependent on their mahouts for their survival. Both are being recruited to mitigate human and animal conflict by educating the local community, and create effective barriers between people and local wildlife.

Preparing for the Future

If the sanctuary is successful in protecting the wildlife within its borders, the plan is to extend the sanctuary further to the south, north, and west to cover a total area of almost 1.5 million acres of wildlife habitat.

While the 13 wildlife protection teams supported by the grant are the biggest patrol team managed by NGOs in one area of Indonesia, they are still not nearly enough to monitor the 6.4 million acres of the Leuser ecosystem. Putra and his team need at least 24 wildlife patrol team members to address wildlife poaching, and to educate and train communities about the importance of conservation.

The work of wildlife rangers is challenging and often dangerous. They live outdoors in all weathers, for two weeks at a time, and face a daily battle of tracking illegal loggers and poachers, who are often armed.

This video shows both the dedication required and the challenges faced by the Wildlife Protection Team:

Warning: this video shows some scenes of poaching which may be upsetting to some viewers.

Do One Thing

This incredible ecosystem cannot be exploited by those seeking a quick profit. And the people and wildlife who depend on it deserve a better future. Donate to HAkA and support the work of Putra to expand the sanctuary, continue their establishment of research stations (such as the Ketambe Research Station helping to ensure the survival of Orangutans), prevent illegal logging and help equip wildlife patrol teams to protect endangered mammals:

“When we lose the forest, we lose our rhinos, we lose our water, and we lose the Aceh people. The time to stop it is now.”
— Rudi Putra

You can also join us in Tweeting a thank you to @LeoDiCaprio for his commitment to protecting the Leuser ecosystem:


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